Posted: 20 Mar. 2019 5 min. read

Helping leaders become crisis leaders

What is the most important component of any effective crisis response?

We are frequently asked this question by organisations seeking to improve their crisis preparedness planning.

Many factors play a role in an effective response to any crisis, which means a successful crisis preparedness programme must therefore address many elements.

However, if there is one factor evident in the response to those crises deemed to have been successfully responded to, it is effective leadership or, more specifically, effective ‘crisis leadership’.

So what can organisations do, as part of their crisis management planning, to ensure they have leaders who can make the transition from leader to crisis leader?

To answer that question, it is necessary to know what lies at the heart of successful crisis leadership.

Different but the same

It’s tempting to say that being an effective ‘crisis leader’ requires a different or special set of competencies. But, does it?

Effective crisis leaders can execute four tasks:

1. understand what’s happening in their operating environment, internally and externally
2. articulate their organisation’s role in the overall crisis response
3. identify attainable objectives, and inspire others to work with them to achieve them
4. assign accountable actions and follow up.

These are, of course, the tasks demanded of leaders every day. So why do leaders often fail to transition from leader to crisis leader?

The reality is that these competencies are incredibly difficult to execute in ‘business as usual’. A crisis brings circumstances which makes them even harder to execute.

Leaders’ frustration with their sudden inability to execute these tasks to their satisfaction then emerges in ineffective behaviours such as short tempers, premature blame-laying or hunting for perfect solutions prematurely. This saps the leader’s authority making their execution yet harder still. A vicious circle begins to turn.

So, what can be done about it?

Three steps to help leaders transition from leader to crisis leader:

1. Organise the leadership before a crisis hits

Organisations mature in their crisis preparedness planning typically have tiered crisis structures with tactical, operational and strategic response teams with designated leaders of each. Few organisations, however, consider how their remaining leaders will organise themselves in a crisis. If the leader of the strategic crisis management team (CMT) is not the CEO, what role will the CEO take? What authority will be delegated to the CMT leader? What role will the chair of the Board and non-executive directors take? The chaos of a crisis brings multiple opportunities for leaders to bump into each other, hustle for dominance, duplicate actions or give contradictory instructions. Steps should be taken to minimise the risk of this happening.

2. Teach techniques to execute leadership tasks in crisis

Tools and techniques exist which help leaders to exercise the critical tasks that are required of them in a crisis. They centre on helping the leader cut through the noise and confusion a crisis brings and help them work decisively and collaboratively with the CMT. Leaders need guidance on these techniques.  

3. Give leaders an opportunity to practice

Tools and techniques, however, don’t lead during crises – people do. Leaders need to be given the opportunity to practise what they have been taught. A great platform to help do this is the crisis simulation exercise. Yet, ‘leadership’ is rarely given the focus it ought to during such exercises. This needs to change.

This list is not comprehensive. However, taking these steps will help organisations prepare their leaders to make the transition from leader to crisis leader and therefore to significantly improve their organisation’s capacity to respond to the challenges a crisis brings.

This blog was adapted from ‘Insights from crisis response – Helping leaders become crisis leaders.

If you would like to discuss the points raised, please contact Tim Johnson using the details below.

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Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson

Lead Partner, Crisis & Resilience

Tim is a crisis, issues and reputation management specialist and a partner in Deloitte’s specialist Crisis and Resilience practice. He has worked all over the world helping clients improve their crisis management and crisis communication preparedness. He has also helped clients respond to threats ranging from allegations of fraud and malpractice, industrial accidents leading to multiple fatalities, cyber breaches, litigation, sensitive asset divestments, organisational restructuring and supply chain failures. His clients have included energy majors, travel companies, global pharmaceutical companies, international defense contractors and central banks. Tim has particular experience of advising senior executives during crises on their broadcast interviews and other public appearances as well as on the effective execution of their wider leadership responsibilities. Tim was chief operating officer of specialist crisis management consultancy, Regester Larkin, prior to its acquisition by Deloitte in 2016. Tim’s book, ‘Crisis Leadership’ was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.